Douglas Alexander MP’s speech to Scottish Labour Party Conference 2012

At the Scottish Labour Party Conference 2012, DOUGLAS ALEXANDER MP spoke about the roots of the party and the value of the Union.


It is good to be with you here today.

It is customary to begin these speeches with an amusing story. But today I want to begin, instead, with a heartfelt tribute.

Last Saturday, Thomas Watters, a Glasgow Corporation bus driver, passed away at the age of 99.

Thomas was the last Scottish Member of the International Brigade. He worked alongside the 4,000 men of the British Battalion, who in 1936, went from these islands to defend the cause of democracy in Spain.

He didn’t go as a fighter, he went as an ambulance man.

For others – the thread workers in the mills of my own Paisley Constituency – solidarity was expressed through financial and material support given willingly to their brothers and sisters in the factories of Barcelona.

From this platform today, let us pay tribute to Thomas Watters, to his fellow members of the International Brigade, and to those here at home who stood in solidarity against the tide of fascism.

Let us pay tribute because Thomas’ heroism reminds us that our story and the struggles of Scotland’s working people have long been interwoven with the stories of working people from across these islands.

But Thomas’ courage should also remind us that for, our movement, the claims of our shared humanity, and solidarity have always extended furth of Scotland.

Now there’s an old saying that charity begins at home. But that has never been Scottish Labour’s creed.

Think of Labour in the City of Glasgow – embracing Nelson Mandela in the 1980s.

Think of the tireless work of Gordon Brown to write off the debts of the world’s poorest countries in the 1990s.

Think of the Gleneagles Summit in 2005 when a Labour Government led the world by demanding that climate change and global poverty be at the top of the international agenda.

Internationalism – never nationalism – has always been our lodestar.

It’s not just about what we believe. It’s about who we are:

My mother worked as doctor in the Southern General. My father was a Parish Minister in Renfrewshire.
But like millions of their fellow Scots, my parents horizons were never limited to one community or one country.

My mother was born in China – the child of Scottish Medical Missionaries. My father graduated from Glasgow University one week but the next week travelled to New York and worked amidst the poverty of East Harlem.

So when nationalists say to me that being part of Britain cuts Scotland off from the world, I say to them: That’s not my Scotland.

And when they suggest that we’d be better to just ignore the struggle of others and instead look out for ourselves, I say again: That’s just not the Scotland I belong to.

And even if Scotland ever did succumb to such an outlook – the world is heading in the opposite direction.
From the Eurozone Crisis to the Environment, from Export Markets to Mass Migration, interdependence – not independence – is the hallmark of our age.

So, if we can’t escape from that interdependent world we have to ask ourselves: How best we can influence our world in the service of our ideals?

Let us say confidently and clearly:

There is nothing “positive” or “progressive” in retreating from the world.

And if the objective is engaging with the world, then there is nothing ‘anti-Scottish’ in acknowledging these facts:

If we want to advance international cooperation: Britain has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. A separate Scotland would not.

If we want to strengthen our collective security: Britain has a permanent seat on the Council of NATO. A separate Scotland would not.

If we want to engage the emerging economies: Britain has a permanent seat on the G20: A separate Scotland would not.

If we want to tackle disease and poverty: Britain has a permanent seat on the Board of the World Bank. A separate Scotland would not.

If we want to regulate the global financial markets: Britain has a permanent seat on the Board of the IMF. A separate Scotland would not.

As proud Scots, we may feel there’s ‘no where better’.

But we also know that there‘s something bigger.

And in the coming century our influence would be diminished, and our global reach more limited without the British Connection.

And in the months ahead it will be up to Scottish Labour, to every person in this room, and every one of us in our Party to make the case that Scotland stands taller on the world stage as part of Britain.

We are stronger together, and we’d be weaker apart.

Under Johann’s leadership we must challenge narrow nationalist politics and expose the aching gulf between the nationalist’s rhetoric and the reality experienced by the rest of us.

Take my community in Renfrewshire, where 23 unemployed people are today chasing every vacancy in the local job centre.

And here in Dundee, almost 6,000 unemployed people are competing for fewer than 400 jobs.

Every time I do my surgery I listen to the people behind these numbers – people who are crying out for help and support to make the best of who they are.

Conference, we understand that it’s not aspiration that’s lacking in our communities today – it’s opportunity.
It’s work. It’s jobs.

But what is the Nationalists’ response to this jobs crisis?

Are the Nationalists busy providing jobs or skills to the young people in Paisley or young people here in Dundee?

No. They boast about free education, but have slashed the budget of our local FE colleges, like Reid Kerr, by £54 million.

Are they protecting the vital local services that help Scottish families through tough times?
No. They’ve increased charges, sacked staff, and slashed teacher numbers.

That is why May’s elections matter. It’s why this week I’ve been out on the doorsteps in Renfrewshire with our local council candidates.

And it’s why, in the weeks ahead, we must all be urging and asking voters to support Scottish Labour on May 3rd.

Because our communities need Labour Councillors providing not just good value, but good values.
Defending services. Upholding fairness. Protecting the vulnerable.

Just as in the 80s it now falls to Labour councillors to be the last line of defence for our communities.

The last line of defence against a Tory Government with policies tearing our society apart, and a Nationalist Government determined to tear our country apart.

We face a Nationalist Government weak in principle but strong in purpose.

And, as a party, we have to understand how we find ourselves in this position, if we are to break its dynamics and so generate a different outcome.

The origins of our defeat last May were deep, not recent. And they demand an honest and painful reckoning.

Too many saw us as being more Anti-Nationalist than Pro-Scottish.

Too many saw us as a party of tribalists not a party of thinkers.

Too many felt Scotland had changed, and that Scottish Labour had not.

So here, in Dundee, our task, as a Party, is to demonstrate, by our words and deeds, that we are motivated by a sense of pride, passion, and possibility for Scotland.

With Johann’s leadership that task of renewal is now underway.

So, true to our history and alive to contemporary currents, we must be open minded on how we can improve devolution’s powers, including fiscal powers, but be resolute in our rejection of separation.

Working with other parties, with local communities and with civic Scotland – as the authors of Devolution, we must be both the defenders and developers of Devolution.

And let us tell the Nationalists with a quiet confidence that they can bully, they can bluster and they can boast, but on the issue of separation: They do not speak for Scotland.

To the Nationalists I say this: You can try and delay the Scottish people’s choice. But you will not change the Scottish people’s verdict.

At our best, Scottish Labour has been the party of not just constitutional but, also of economic and social renewal.

These are the tasks to which we must dedicate ourselves under Johann’s leadership.

But that renewal requires the contribution of each of us.

One more heave would simply guarantee one more defeat. And then another. And then another.

The threats to Scotland are too great, and the risks too real, for Scottish Labour to settle for a quiet life of decline and defeat.

We need to change and change radically – not to disavow our deepest beliefs, but to become a better expression of them.

We need to change how we identify and select our candidates, how we organise and fund our campaigns, and how we develop and communicate our policies.

We need to change so that people across Scotland who share our values but would not now consider standing as a Labour candidate will change their mind and say: That is where I want to be, and who I want to stand with.

To fail to embrace these changes would be to abdicate our responsibility to the very people and the very communities we came into politics to serve.

Remember this: Scottish Labour’s past success was not inevitable.

And neither is Scottish Labour’s future recovery.

We have to earn it.

And if we need inspiration in that endeavour then let us remind ourselves:

When Keir Hardie and the Trade Unions founded our Party they started without power, without money, and without influence.

And when, in recent times, we selected candidates of the calibre of Alistair Darling, Sam Galbraith, and Brian Wilson, and Helen Liddle they began in opposition, but in time were judged not just worthy of Government, but truly a credit to Scotland.

In their day Smith, Cook, Brown and Dewar did not feel entitled to Govern. They felt called to serve.

They stood up for their beliefs, just as, in a different time, Thomas Watters stood up for his.

So let it be said of this Party, gathered in Dundee:

We had the insight to understand, and the courage to change.

For it is only by embracing change that we can prove ourselves, once more, worthy of our Nation’s trust.

That is our urgent task.

That is our solemn duty.

And, working together, it can be our shared achievement.

Douglas Alexander is the Shadow Foreign Secretary and served in the last Labour government as Secretary of State for Scotland, Transport and International Development. Follow Douglas on Twitter at @DAlexanderMP.

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19 thoughts on “Douglas Alexander MP’s speech to Scottish Labour Party Conference 2012

  1. In Summary: It is better for Scots to be ruled a Tory government in London than to run Scotland ourselves.

    Conclusion: Subservience to London is preferable to independence from Edinburgh.

    I would like to thank Douglas Alexander for clearing that up.

  2. Think of Labour in the City of Glasgow.

    I do. I think about it a lot, and I wonder if anyone in Labour Scotland does. STILL No comment from Johann or Nick. Sorry David, no Ed. (He’s your one isn’t he? It’s so hard to tell the difference!) No investigation into claims of bullying? No worries about the resignations and the forthcoming election? No? No, of course not. Just keep calm and carry on. How very BRITISH of the supposedly SCOTTISH Labour party.

  3. Observation: Darling, Galbraith, Wilson and Liddle weren’t exactly cheerleaders for devolution. Smith, Cook and Dewar also expressed opposition and reservations. Even Gordon Brown’s early enthusiasm was wearing mightily thin at the end.

  4. A comparison:

    Douglas Alexander says he is “open minded” about Scotland having new additional tax powers.

    Johann Lamont rejects Scotland having new tax raising powers saying it is wrong for Scotland to engage in tax competition with the rest of the UK.

    It is clear that the Labour leadership is nowhere near reaching a consensus on additional tax powers for Scotland.

    The SNP will exploit such confusion within Labour ranks.

  5. I would agree with you on the following if you chanhe Scottish Labour to Scotland

    “The threats to Scotland are too great, and the risks too real, for Scotland to settle for a quiet life of decline and defeat.”

    Because a quiet life of decline and defeat is what might happen to Scotland if we follow the unionists of the cliff and don’t decidevnow to take our future into our own hands. The very reason why Scotland has so many emigrants over the centuries is because of the quality of life here and our inability in this union to change anything for the better. Labour has not done much of note to improve unemployment, reduce poverty and create equality and in this union I cannot see things changing. We need to look after our own affairs and those of us who live here and passionately look for improvement much be given the care of the country to improve things.


    Practice what you preach for a change, have the courage to vote Independence, vote country – not party.

  7. Congratulations on a very wll thought.out speech, Douglas. You’ve hit several nails on the head and I’d like to expand a little on just one of them. I’ve done many hours of canvassing in some of the poorest areas of the Central Belt and by far the main reason the people want to stay part of our Union is the permanent seat on the UN security council and other influential bodies. When people are unemployed and their depressing surroundings offer no hope whatsover of a better future, it is no small comfort for them to be aware that their very own country is one of the chosen few which has a right of veto on important UN proposals. The Nationalists must never be allowed to take away from them the only pleasure they have left.

    1. Remarkable – do you really think that people in poverty, unemployed and living in “depressing surroundings”, have Britain’s veto at the UN at the forefront of their minds ?

      You claim that “by far the main reason the people want to stay part of our Union is the permanent seat on the UN security council”. Again – do you *really* believe that this is the main reason for people to want to remain in the Union ? Or that it should be ?

      Britain’s seat on the UN security council is “the only pleasure they have left ” ?? What ? Can I have some of whatever you are smoking ?

      Your insight and understanding of what the poor and underpivileged are thinking is almost uncanny.

      Oh – wait…’re the same guy that “knows for a fact” that Americans regret their independence and want to return to London rule.

      Such breath-taking nonsense on a serious web site would be hilarious if I though for one second you were joking.

      Sadly, I think you really believe the mince you spout on these pages.

      1. Brilliant. Enjoyed your deadpan yet witty ripost to Nigel Ranter’s obviously satirical post.

  8. I often turn to the Charter of the UN Security Council and deliberate over all those fine ideals.

    I especially cherish the one that says :

    “to formulate plans for the establishment of a system to regulate armaments;”

    But as the UK is one of the largest exporters of arms in the world, I often agonise whether it is right and proper for us to even be a member.

    It is to Mr Alexanders credit that he is of the opinion that Ms Lamont is now leading the Labour bull by the horns and tackling the internal divisions and bad practices that have led the Labour party into the political doldrums. I, however, am still waiting for any kind of leadership quality being shown, especially over the shenanigans in Glasgow.

    Remember, there are areas of Glasgow that are amongst the poorest and most deprived in Europe that have been represented by your party for generations. I suggest, Mr Alexander, that you focus on that first before thinking about your next contribution to the agenda of The World Bank.

  9. Let’s see now, we have had the PM and several other Unionist ministers and opposition shadows making speeches in the past few days. Now I could sum all their speeches like this – “If you Scots vote No to independence we will grant you some wonderful extra powers. After all we are better off together than apart, but you have to vote NO first – Trust me I’m a ——-, (insert your chosen Unionist Party name here). Trouble is not many Scots DO trust them as we have been here too many times before.

  10. “Nigel Ranter” do you not think your comments may be a bittie too deep and therefore may confuse Mr Alexander and followers.
    Perhaps repeated calls of we are DOOMED aye DOOMED would be more approprate for those of a unionist leaning, followed by an end of conference sale of sack-cloth and ashes.
    Also remember the positive message for the union is ? err ? , excuse me has anyone seen the “positive message yet” ?

  11. Fine words Douglas but you surely know you’ve missed the boat. The SS Scotland has already sailed into the sunset with Alex Salmond at the helm and his trusty crew well capable of gaining the trust of the passengers and keeping a steady course towards independence.
    You and your Labour crew had it all – power, influence and a trusting, unquestioning following. But you blew it. You didn’t treat the passengers or the boat properly, sleeping on the watch and putting your own interests before theirs at every turn. Now the passengers have jumped ship, your Labour boat has run aground and you and your careless crew are marooned, up the creek without a paddle.

  12. douglas douglas

    your speech nearly brought a tear to my eyes

    but really cmon, labour needs to get with the program you have nothing to fear but fear its self

    you have an opportunity to prise powers away from westminster but you know full well if scotland votes no to independence , that opportunity will vanish for a generation

    ignore the unionists from within your party they have nothing to offer and their fundemental unionist beliefs cloud their decisions concerning policy and party strategy

    maybe one day in the future a labour politician will be writting a speech and he will remind us off the mp douglas alexander who did many great things for the country he knew in his heart was home

    tissue please

  13. There is no escaping. If you do not set out clearly what a ‘No’ vote means, you are going to lose.
    You must set out what post referendum changes you would make, what extra powers will be devolved?
    Of course there is a big ‘IF’ here. If the Tories win the next UK general election, you will be powerless anyway, so I would be as well voting for independence to ensure that change happens!
    Convince me otherwise, I am listening.

  14. to be fair, Douglas, Labour were the authors of devolution becuase of a fear of the gnats – the whole point of the exercise was to ‘kill the nationalists stone dead’ as Lord Robertsojn told us at the time.
    However you are totally corect about the need for change rather than talking about change. The gnats are weak in several areas. Embracing FFA and a decent programme of personal liberty and the protection of individuals agaisnt the intrusive power of the state would put a huge dent in their lead in the polls because people would like the message. It would also play well with glib-dumb voters who seen their party standing on the very brink of the abyss – so why not give them another wee push at this critical juncture? It would even play well with some of the brighter tory voters.
    There is a need to stop shooting the paty in it’s own foot. The refeendum is not a shoo-in for the gnats. Labour could adopt a no-Trident, FFA, personal freedom agenda and prosper. Somebody needs to pick up the ball and run to the try-line…why not you Douglas? Does anybody seriously think that having Gordon and Alistair – alongside Nick Clog and Dingbat Cameron – at the forefront of the referendumm campaign is a good idea?

  15. Sorry about the typos – could n’t get my lenses in this morning.

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